Emerald Feather

Thirteen

She wasn't used to being chased. She was usually the one to do the chasing, and she didn't at all like the idea of running from something. Unfortunately it was necessary. If the ruthless group of cat people caught her, she had no idea what they would do to her. She may be 'needed', but that didn't mean anything. Last time she had been in their hands, they had set a panther on her and tried to trick her into thinking Ninyo wanted her to kill her baby. They weren't to be trusted.

She'd almost thought she could trust the cloaked figure. After all, she had been the one to tell her that magic existed, and that she had some herself. She had been the one to tell her where Ninyo was, a man who she had now known and loved for almost two Monsoon seasons.

She reached the beach within a few days, breaking out through the dark green trees and onto the sun-baked beach. Panting, she looked right, then left and right again. No area of the beach looked even remotely familiar. She had no idea which way she was supposed to run to get back to the river mouth. She could wait for Ninyo to meet her there, but there was no guarantee he would. He could be halfway down the beach already. Or back down another hole, but Keena wouldn't let herself think about that.

She ran her fingers through her hair and looked up and down the beach again, still having no inspiration as to which way she should turn. She sighed and shimmied up a nearby palm tree, looking out through the fronds to get a better overview of the beach, and grab a coconut while she was up there. Neither direction brought her anymore joy than it had standing on the beach.

She was about to slide back down the palm just when she spotted a figure walking away from her to her right. She peered down the beach at the figure as it walked clumsily along the beach. It stumbled and fell to the sand, struggling to stand again before moving on.

Keena forgot about the coconut, slid down the tree and ran up the beach to the figure. She didn't need proof; she knew it was Ninyo. He collapsed again when she caught up to him, and she dropped to her knees next to him.

"Ninyo!" she gasped, "What happened?"

Ninyo got onto all fours and coughed. "I'm fine," he rasped. A long gash ran down his back from his left shoulder down to his right hip. A second sword-wound cut into his arm, still dripping blood, and Keena could see a row of cuts on his face running over his eye.

She tenderly placed her arm over his shoulders, trying to avoid the gash. He cringed. "No you're not," she informed him.

"Seriously, I'm-" he broke off in a coughing fit, fell back onto his stomach and groaned. "Okay, I'm not, but I'm better than a lot of them are."

Keena broke off into the rainforest, searching the undergrowth for the healing plant her mother had used when she cut herself as a child. Finally she found one, uprooting the soft-leafed plant and running back to the wounded man.

He hadn't moved since she left. She first thought it was because he was too exhausted to move, but soon realised he had in fact fainted. She dragged his bloodied body by his hands up the beach into the shade of the palm trees then set to work with his wounds.

Using a large leaf, she brought some water up from the sea and washed the dried blood from his back and arm, then pressed the crushed leaves of the plant against the gash, squeezing its juices out and massaging them into his back. After she had laid one of the longer leaves along the wound, she rolled him onto his back to inspect any damage there.

"What did they do to you, Ninyo?" she whispered.

Aside from the lines over his right eye and his emeralds, which had obviously come from the claws of the tiger man, another, deeper group of claw marks slashed over his stomach, as well as a pair of sword wounds down his chest, all now clad in sand.

But most horrifying of all was the red raw skin on his left shoulder and part of his face; the result of Red Magic. No wonder Ninyo hadn't looked up at her when she'd first found him. She shuddered to think of how the others had fared.

When she had finished applying the juices of the healing plant to Ninyo's horrendous wounds, she gently stroked his pitch black hair.

"What happened to you, Ninyo?" she whispered.

He woke the next morning, when Keena was reapplying the juices to the fire wound. He gasped at the pain, sitting up and clutching at his shoulder with his hand.

Keena put her hand sympathetically on his back, but he didn't appear to feel it. And I thought giving birth was painful, she thought to herself. His face showed more pain than she cared to imagine.

She figured it would be a good idea to wait for a while to ask him what had happened. Even though she was itching to know, she didn't want to torture him any more than he already was. Carefully she pushed him onto his back and forced him to relax while she finished with the healing plant.

Ninyo didn't protest, but he cringed and bit his lip when her fingers touched the burnt flesh.

"Where-" He coughed painfully. "-Where's the baby?"

"Shh," Keena told him, not wanting to worry him at present.

It was several days before Ninyo's condition began to improve. Keena was constantly aware that the cat people could appear at any moment. As far as she knew, there was no one in their group with the Green Magic needed to sense them, but she had a feeling they would have more tricks up their sleeves they could use to find the pair.

She and Ninyo were sitting on the beach sipping on coconut milk when she couldn't put it off any longer. She had to know what had happened to him.

Ninyo went silent and swallowed another mouthful of the sweet liquid. "Do you seriously want to know?" he asked.

"If you don't tell me I'll just be left wondering," she answered sternly.

Ninyo gave a shaky sigh before he started talking again. "The original plan was to get a fair distance away from their camp then snap a twig or something to get them to follow me and let you escape. Problem was that I was spotted before I could get away, but I didn't notice until they cut down my back, then called for everyone else to come and get me.

"I disarmed the guy who'd attacked me, like you do only not as good, then just ran for it. But I wasn't quite fast enough. Being stuck in that hole for so long doesn't do great things for your mobility, you know what I mean?

"Anyway, that's when I was ambushed by another three guys. One got my arm. I seriously didn't mean to, but the guy who got my arm got in the way of Gold Dragon and I-" He wiped a painful tear from his right eye, cringing when the salty water touched his cut. "I slit his throat."

He gulped and wiped more tears from his eyes. Keena laid her arm comfortingly over his shoulders, and he took a shaky breath before continuing.

"That made the other two really angry, which is fair enough, and attacked me like they were trying to kill me rather than just catch me, that's when they cut my chest. I somehow managed to get their swords out of their hands, then tried to run again.

"But then I heard the tiger roar, and within seconds it was on me, slashing its claws over me like, yeah, like it was trying to kill me. All I wanted to do was stop it attacking, so I cut at its front paw, hoping that would slow it down, then I just bolted. But even with a cut foot the tiger was faster than me. I tripped on a branch or something and fell on my back.

"The look in its eyes when it pounced on me was… it was… I can't describe it. I knew it was the guy with Tiger Magic, but he could have easily been a real tiger. I never wanted to, but I had no choice. I had to use my magic or else he'd have killed me."

Keena fought the urge to just take him in her arms and hug him, but she knew that would cause more pain for him than comfort him. But he wasn't finished yet.

"By this time I knew they didn't just want to catch me so they could, I dunno, go kill the person with Black Magic, but they wanted to actually erase me from existence, so I figured the only way I was going to get out of it was to make them scared to attack me. So I stood over the tiger with Gold Dragon out and yelled at them not to come a step closer or else I'd have to use my magic on them.

"I thought the tiger would have been enough to scare them away, but one of the girls, one with fire magic, threw a massive fireball right at me. I only just got out of the way in time, then it hit the trees and set them alight. The second one got me though, and after the third one I decided that enough was enough, so I had to let the Green Magic on her."

The tears were running freely now. "I didn't want to kill any of them! I just wanted to get away, but I didn't have a choice! Two more of them tried stupidly to run forward at the same time with their swords before the rest figured it was a lost cause trying to get at me. Five people I had to kill! Five! My whole life I've never even considered using my magic deliberately on another person, but I just killed five within a few seconds!"

He buried his face in his hands, unable to continue. Keena didn't know what she was supposed to do. She'd never seen him even shed a tear before, but for him to break down like this was just wrong. Being very careful to avoid his war-wounds, she wrapped her arms around his shaking body and just let him cry into his shoulder.

"It's not your fault, Ninyo," she told him soothingly. She hoped her words would somehow comfort him. "If you didn't do anything they would have killed you. You didn't have a choice, they brought it on themselves. You're safe now." She felt she was sounding as superficial as the White Magic man had been, but eventually Ninyo started to calm down.

He sat up and wiped his eyes dry. "So what's your story?"

Keena looked away. "I'll tell you later, when you've healed up."

"It can't be any worse than mine." He attempted at a laugh.

She sighed and looked at the darkening green jewel in her hand. It no longer sparkled as it had only a few days ago. There was no light in the jewel; it was dead. "Long story short, Qillan has our baby."

"That can't be good."

"She appeared just after I'd given birth, told me not to waste my energy, that the baby was hers and not to take him back, then she just took him and disappeared." She gulped, trying to hold back any tears. She didn't want to upset Ninyo any more than he already was. He'd been through too much.

Ninyo just nodded and stared out over the sea. "You know we're going to get him back, don't you?"

"Course. You know you're going to heal yourself first, don't you?"

"S'pose it'd be a good idea." He thought for a minute. "Could always look for a healer somewhere."

"Give you a few more days then we'll start walking back. Hopefully we'll see a healer on the way."

"Hope so, 'cos I have been seriously caning for the past couple of days."

Keena smiled and kissed him lightly on his cheek.

Fourteen